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Biggest Myths About the Common Cold

By Emily Lockhart

Medically Reviewed by Patty Weasler, RN

With colder weather descending upon the northern parts of North America, many people will be staying inside, thereby increasing the chances they’ll contract and then spread the common cold. It means that, while many people will be excited about sharing the holidays with friends and family, the gifts they’re most likely to pass on to their loved ones could be a plugged nose, sore throat, and nagging cough.

Given this situation, it’s a good idea for everyone to understand the common cold a little better, starting with the many misconceptions, or myths, out there. So, what little white lies about the common cold did you believe until today?

Your Cold was Caused by Chilly Weather

It’s tough to deny that the common cold often appears more frequently once the temperature drops and snow starts to cover the ground. But there’s little scientific evidence to suggest that the colder weather has much of anything to do with the emergence of colds in the home or workplace.

So, what is the culprit? Put simply, it’s the fact that, during the colder months (usually October to April or so) we spend far more of our time in confined spaces with other people, like our colleagues, friends and family members. Adding to this is the fact that fall and winter bring the year’s biggest holidays, which tend to involve people spending time in the company of others inside rather than out in nature. In essence, your sniffly uncle Lou is probably to blame for your new head cold, not Frosty the Snowman.

Being Wet in the Cold Can Make You Sick

Some people insist that heading out into the cold with something wet — like your hair following a shower — can significantly increase your chances of getting sick with the common cold. These same people tend to argue that, the more wet you are, the more likely you are to get sick.

But that’s simply not the truth. While being wet outside can cause your body temperature to drop faster, opening you up to issues like hypothermia, it’s unlikely to raise your chances of catching the common cold. Remember that colds are caused by viruses, not temperature, so wearing a toque or ear muffs won’t do much to protect you from the sniffles.

Antibiotics Can Help

If you’ve ever had a particularly rotten head cold, like a very stuffed-up nose and a nagging cough that just won’t go away, you’ve probably wished for a fast-acting cure. Unfortunately, there really isn’t anything that can quickly end a cold, including antibiotics. And while it’s true that antibiotics can have a dramatic impact on many illnesses that share characteristics with the common cold, they can’t do much to stop an actual head cold.

Why? Simply because most head colds are caused by viruses, which cannot be killed by antibiotics. The infections associated with the common cold won’t go away if you take antibiotics; rather, your body needs to fight the infection on its own. To help with this we can treat the symptoms using a variety of methods, but in the end we’re just covering up the nastiest side effects of a cold. It’s our immune system that will ultimately wage and win the fight.

Gobbling Vitamin C Helps

For generations we’ve closely associated the intake of vitamin C and its sources — from citrus fruit to lozenges — with the common cold. And while getting enough vitamin C can help prevent a common cold from taking hold (by boosting our immune system), it can’t do a whole lot to fight a cold if it takes hold. In fact, there’s no research to suggest that shoving vitamin C into your body will do anything to alleviate the symptoms associated with a head cold.

So, enjoy a tangerine, grapefruit, or some orange juice while you’re struggling with a nasty cold, but don’t expect it to help you beat that cold any time soon.

Drinking Milk Worsens a Cold

This is a somewhat older and less popular theory, but some people believe that consuming dairy products, like milk or cheese, can actually cause your body to make more phlegm or mucus. But that’s just not true. Dairy can make phlegm thicker, says the Mayo Clinic which can make it harder for you to clear your throat or cause irritation in the back of your throat.

So, you can drink milk while you’re sick, but if your phlegm is thick you might want to avoid it. That said, the best fluid to consume while you’re down and out with a head cold may be water, will help keep you hydrated and give your body the tools it needs to fight the infection.

The Flu Shot Can Make You Sick

The arrival of cold weather is often accompanied by calls from medical experts to get the flu shot, which can help prevent influenza from taking hold and spreading throughout a local population. And because the flu shot contains tiny amounts of the virus that leads to the actual flu, many people believe it can blow up and cause a bad head cold in the person who received the shot.

But there’s simply no evidence to support that claim. After all, the shot provides such a tiny amount of the flu virus that there’s really no way for it to become anything substantial. And while getting the flu shot can have an impact on your body — such as making the area where you received the shot a little sore — it won’t leave you feeling unable to attend work or important events or activities.


Patty is a freelance health writer and nurse (BSN, CCRN). She has worked as a critical care nurse for over 10 years and loves educating people about their health. When she's not working, Patty enjoys any outdoor activity that she can do with her husband and three kids.

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